Last Friday and Saturday, three avalanche deaths were reported outside of the country in Colorado, which naturally led people to wonder whether the COVID-inspired tourist equipment sales boom contributed to the planned avalanche death rally.
That’s not true. It’s a good policy not to weigh in on the details of avalanche accidents, such as the angle of inclination, decision-making, and cause of death, until local avalanche centers and medical experts have prepared their reports, and we’ll honor that here. But we know enough, and my report confirms it, to rule out the premise that the Colorado victims were novices. You’ll have a hard time finding three more experienced SUVs.
There are hundreds of nuanced human and environmental factors in every avalanche death, but the community on a tragic weekend in Colorado is clear. All the skiers were skiing with a rain avalanche during a very suspicious winter start. Even in the west of the mountain, with its notoriously risky continental snow pack that sees weak layers, snow backpacks early in the season can be particularly deadly. That’s true, in particular: Colorado’s avalanche risk was “responsible” during the accidents and hasn’t been since 2012, when 11 avalanches killed the state. And this is also true as an increase in acceleration: any avalanche on the new thin one will probably drag it onto the rocks, generalizing the risk of injury. While this isn’t universally true, deeper snow backpacks tend to be less volatile when it comes to persistent weaknesses. By isolating weak layers from wild temperature changes, physically distancing skiers from the effects of hidden triggers, and mechanically suppressing the weakness of snow changes, deep snow backpacks can (sometimes; hopefully) make out-of-country trips more predictable.
This is very relevant at this time in the Rocky Mountains. Brian Lazar, associate director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, describes the conditions: “we saw early snow in October, which is never good. This snow settled on the ground under a faceted blue sky – he thinks of sugar snow – rather abruptly. When we started getting snow, he put the slab back on that weak layer. Now we load these slabs with a lot of snow and skiers, and they’re pretty reactive. This is a kind of instability, unique in a decade.”
Such an early nows season is not conducive to a ski avalanche. But year after year, more and more skiers are heading to these environments.
Something has changed not with the outside world, but with us. My personal history as a country skier is somewhat instructive. In the 1990s, when I started skiing regularly in the countryside, my tourist season only started in winter. I liked to put my ski feet under me in the area in December and January, as I tuned in to local avalanche warnings, asked questions, monitored the weather, waited for the snow cover to deepen, and built a “season story” of snow cover. Maybe I would head to the gate of the ski area and dig a hole before sliding back or skiing at a low snow angle. By February, when the snowpack has been built on top of it, it will gradually move towards more consistent terrain depending on the conditions. This is still pretty much how my friends Missoula and I approached the countryside today.
This approach has never been universal, nor has it been universally correct. To be clear, outside of the Rockies or in the good years inside them, the early season isn’t always so suspicious. And no matter what, while the skiers were out in the field, people skied early. (Next to Crested Butte, there’s a feature called the Halloween Bowl, because it has historically offered early-season coverage, and sometimes avalanches at the start of the season.But what has changed is that today we have more differences. This dynamic sets up two more: first, says Carl Birkeland, director of the Forest Service’s National Avalanche Center, many of the lower and more predictable slopes closest to the trails are filled in and tracked. This pushes more experienced skiers to larger, more consistent terrain, perhaps sooner than they would traditionally have. “We don’t have data to support this,” says Birkeland, ” but it’s my personal experience that people are skiing with bigger goals earlier than before. They ski through the terrain they used to wait for until spring. I do not know why this is so. But I think that what we observe anecdotally is true. Maybe it’s because I’m skiing with my daughters now, and I’m more aware of it. Or maybe this is our new reality.”
There are other factors at play. The risks of cross-country skiing are less noticeable than other sports. Crash your mountain bike, get maytagged in a white water hole, or take a climbing whisk and the feedback is consistent. After a few mistakes, you know the results. But avalanches don’t work that way. We got out in March and drove along the avalanche road. It’s not an avalanche. We are rewarded with positive emotions throughout the month. Then we go out next December, and it slides, with possibly deadly results. Our mountains and our minds are full of slopes “that never slide” until they do.
Sarah Carpenter, an instructor and co-owner of the American Avalanche Institute, attributes much of our decision-to adopt outside the country-to this conflicting feedback. “More users and social media also play a role,” says Carpenter, who teaches at Jackson, ” but it’s the inconsistent nature of Avalanches that has increased the risk tolerance of mountain communities. At Tetons, I like to say that “meaningful” is the new ” moderate.”the more skis in these conditions and unprecedented terrain [[,]] the more it distorts your perspective.Research supports this, Carpenter says. If you ask an experienced skier and a beginner to measure the angle of the slope with the naked eye, which is crucial for determining avalanche terrain, experienced skiers will underestimate the field and beginners will overestimate it.
None of this means that self-identified field skiers should use my approach to skiing. It’s easy for me to resist the challenge of rocks at the beginning of the season, I lost a friend in an avalanche at the beginning of the season, and another friend was almost paralyzed after hitting rocks at the beginning of the season, but I fully understand the desire. So is the care at the center of the Colorado avalanche. He’s from Carbondale and sees it as more than a mountain town. “It’s natural to want to go from mountain biking straight to cross-country skiing,” he says. “Dirty brachial stations can knock you off your feet. You feel overwhelmed. But I think patience is reasonable. You don’t want to end your season hitting the rock.or, needless to say, but it still has to be written, causing a life-threatening avalanche.
However, it did not come to his passion. This is also not the message that the avalanche experts I spoke to wanted to convey. Once you’re sure you can avoid rocks and stumps, there’s no need to delay the season any longer. You just need to be deliberate in your decision-making. “You have to choose the right land, given the available conditions,” Birkeland says. “Even with significant or high danger, you can find low-angle shadows that are well clear of avalanche slopes. You can have a great day. And over time, you can have a great season. The good thing about avalanche conditions is that they eventually change.”